Charlie Savage used the current debate in Congress about the NSA metadata program to ask some important questions in an article titled: A Debate Over How Long Democracy Can Wage Battles in Shadows.
But the open debate and vote was also striking because national security programs have so often been created in secret over the past 14 years — from the C.I.A.’s now-defunct torture program to sweeping surveillance activities to the use of drones to kill terrorism suspects away from combat zones.
Secrecy has always been traditional and accepted in wartime, but traditional wars have an end. Under two administrations now, as the United States has remained on a permanent war footing against Al Qaeda and its splintering, morphing progeny, tensions over fighting battles in the shadows have steadily escalated. If this is a forever war, can a democracy wage it in secret?
I would take one big exception to how he’s framed the discussion. Anyone who has studied this country’s history should be aware of the fact that the current battle against al Qaeda (which has now morphed into the battle against ISIS and al Qaeda in Yemen) is part of a long history of non-traditional wars. From the 1950’s all the way through the 1990’s when the Cold War finally ended, the United States waged secret wars around the globe (but primarily in Central/South America) under the guise of fighting communism. There is actually less secrecy about the war on al Qaeda because at least we admit that there is a war going on. It is the tactics that are often kept secret. During the Cold War, this country continually embraced “plausible deniability” for our covert military adventures.
But I was also disappointed that Savage never mentioned in this article that his questions are pretty similar to the one’s President Obama asked us to consider two years ago.
Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions — about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them…
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.
In a way, the President went farther than Savage was willing to go with his questions. Savage seems to accept the idea of a “forever war” and simply suggests further transparency. President Obama said that our freedoms are at risk if we assume “continual warfare.”
Of course the hawks in the Republican Party aren’t interested in having a discussion like this. They are not only fighting against the idea of ending the NSA’s metadata program, they have fought this President every step of the way on things like closing Guantanamo.
On the other hand, progressive Democrats haven’t engaged in the discussion either because they have focused instead on arguing against the tactics used in this ongoing war (drones) or, like Savage, simply demanded more transparency about them.
The point of President Obama’s speech in 2013 was that we need to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that is not based on assuming a war footing. The emergence of ISIS relegated that idea to the back burner. But the quote from James Madison answers Savage’s question: we will not be able to preserve our freedom in the midst of continual warfare. At some point we’re going to need to get back to the discussion that President Obama suggested we should have and find a way to extricate ourselves from this “forever war.”